The typical argument against smoking bans is that the market is capable of deciding where smoking should or should not be allowed more easily and smoothly than any bureaucrat. Such is the current debate in the Michigan Legislature, where several competing bills call for everything from a complete workplace ban to a nearly complete workplace ban with exceptions carved out for Detroit casinos and tobacco shops, regardless of the preferences of private business owners and those who choose to patronize them.

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For example, comedian Heywood Banks performed two shows on Aug. 1 in Bay City. The first show was smoke free, while the second show allowed smoking. Ticket buyers were fully aware of the options, but many legislators would have denied them, and Banks, the option of the second show. This would needlessly hurt his profits when clearly the only people attending the second show were those willing to tolerate the smoke. Likewise, business owners will prohibit smoking on their property if people dislike the smoke enough to hurt their profits.

This argument is unconvincing to legislators who advocate a total smoking ban. After all, why should a non-smoker have to depend on a decision of Heywood Banks in order to see a show without having their bodies invaded with unpleasant and harmful chemicals? As Arthur C. Pigou, who developed the concept of economic externalities, pointed out in 1912, it may not be a good idea to trust the market to produce a desirable outcome when an action affects outsiders. Since smokers don't need to be concerned with the external costs of their smoking that others must pay, they must be constrained in some way.

This type of thinking, however, has been disputed for nearly half a century, most notably by Ronald H. Coase, Nobel Prize winner and noted University of Chicago economist. As Coase said, the Pigovian approach is to consider a case where A harms B, and then ask: "[H]ow should we restrain A? But this is wrong. We are dealing with a problem of a reciprocal nature. To avoid the harm to B would inflict harm on A. The real question that has to be decided is: should A be allowed to harm B or should B be allowed to harm A?"

Those who use a Pigovian argument to defend a smoking ban neglect the externality inherent when non-smokers are allowed to prohibit smokers from enjoying a cigarette at little to no cost — forcing the smoker to foot the bill for the non-smoker's comfort.

While one could ask which harm is greater and should be avoided, the point is that even if a smoking prohibition eliminates a certain harm, it ensures that another harm is unavoidable. Supporters of a total smoking ban need to give a defense of their preference of one abuse to another, and cannot claim to prevent wrong from being done.

Coase even went so far as to say that considering either A or B as responsible for the harm is unproductive and inappropriate since, while there certainly wouldn't be any harm done to bystanders if there were no smoker, there likewise would be no harm done were it not for the presence of the bystanders themselves should they be near a smoker.

Coase strips a common sense picture of aggressor and victim to a reciprocal interaction, devoid of responsibility or blame. This view can, however, be very unsavory, especially if misapplied to cases of intentional damage, arguing for example that a victim of battery is to blame for being in the way of his assailant's fists.

While it may seem shocking to refrain from pointing fingers when there clearly is damage done, perhaps it does make sense to think of second-hand smoke with this strange view of reciprocal harm, since there are two things that set it apart from cases of intentional damage. First, the smoker has no reason to think that, because of him, bystanders are sacrificing their health in tradeoffs they see as harmful overall, since plenty of people tolerate second-hand smoke without complaint. The smoker even has a reason to think that he is hurting no one, since one with a strong preference against the smoke is not forced to be in a privately owned establishment — such as a bar or restaurant — in which the owner has decided to allow smoking.

This is another difference between second-hand smoke and intentional harm — there is reason to believe that the person affected should have expected to be around the smoke, while we would not say that a victim of battery should have expected to be around flying fists.

Rather than allowing our legislators to see themselves as preventing an insidious invasion of rights in which the justification for their use of force in its solution is a given, they should be seen as meddling in a reciprocal interaction between people where the justification for picking one side over another is the pivotal contention.


Nat Hunt, a junior majoring in economics and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, was a 2009 summer intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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